In this month’s Vanity Fair, Juan Lopez does the “dummies” among us a favor by offering them a peek into “Modern Iranian Culture” through literary means: a couple of lines on several books that can do much better than Twitter in illuminating the colorful rhythms of Iran.
This should help, I am sure. But in this chaos of claims and counterclaims, in this rush of burning images and on-the-run tweets, the more riveting type of news is threatening to obscure quieter realities. Iran’s political crisis is the stuff of history at its most rambunctious and exciting, but the truth of the matter is that modern Persia and its Islamist revolution have been captivating many of us for thirty years now, and the most fascinating dynamic to watch has been the capacity of a robust civil society to grow and consolidate its presence in spite of the regime’s best efforts against it, and the inability of an Islamist idea to take hold and establish solid roots in spite of the regime’s best efforts on its behalf.
Here’s the bottom line: the current debacle might be a high-stakes joust between Iran’s competing elites, with havoc on the streets acting as a prop, but had the revolution been alive and well, had its promise been untarnished, had its achievements been widespread and obvious, had its patrons been as clever and as close to the people as they thought they were, its progenitors would not be at such loggerheads.
Without a doubt, Islamist Iran’s accent is as crude and jarring as that of every other Arab authoritarian rule. But there are qualities to this Iranian polity that make it singular in this region: the often heated give and take between the different poles of influence, the clerical audacity that has often challenged, and still does, the idea of Khomeini’s Wilayat al Faqih (the Guardianship of the Supreme Jurist); the sophistication of many high-ups in the political establishment that both complements and stands in stark contrast to the grime pitilessness of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and blatant thuggery of the Basij Mostazafin (mobilization of the oppressed) voluntary militias; the remarkable resilience and ingenuity of a civil society that keep outsmarting, and even at times derailing, the stubborn encroachments of the state’s piety.
Whereas here, in this Arab dominion, our societies are fractured, tired and cowed by leaderships who stare down, club in hand, as one. So now, as many people in Iran make a statement and take a stand, we gape, confused, not sure if we should be happy or up in arms. For certain, our rulers are fretting that they shall soon miss the brazenly hostile politics of Ahmadenijad. And hilariously, so are quite a few of America’s bashers in the opposition, religious conservatives and so-called leftists alike, who seem to be convinced that Mousavi is the “Great Satan’s” man. To this camp, one can easily add Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who is praying as well for the bad boy of Iran.
But for those who see beyond the very narrow concerns of their agendas, both the streets of Iran and the push and pull in its corridors of power are an impressive sight.
It is indeed ironic for the Islamist republic’s masters that at precisely the moment when they thought they were about to finally find their place in the sun, they discovered they were losing it among their own people. The impact of this palpable, though not total, loss of face and legitimacy on their conduct in the regional and international arenas is very likely to be deep and unnerving. If only because of the perception of weakness, Khamenei and his entourage, should they survive this fight, might feel compelled to really jack up the ante.
The plot thickens and, of course, it is early days yet. Still, the most significant development in Iran began to unfold well before the present showdown: the Islamist experiment has been in retreat for quite some time, and one does not have to strain in search of the narratives which have been stacking up against it.
For every story that tells of the wretchedness wrought by foolish pieties and cruel beliefs there is one that speaks of triumphant defiance and unbowed dignity. In the mid-1990s, Iran had no more than 25 to 30 women writers; today, it boasts 400. Moreover, 60 percent of university graduates are women, and well over half the students in Medicine, Basic Sciences, Humanities and Arts and Experimental Sciences are of the finer sex. What opportunities the clerical order was loath to cede to women, wars and economic difficulties gave them. But would that the state’s miserliness were the only impediment obstructing the path of Iran’s struggling women. For thirty years, laws, decrees, morality crusades and modesty campaigns have conspired to thwart potential, kill dreams and insult. Even a random selection of these is enough to clue in the reader.
Almost immediately after the 1978 revolution, the marriage age for girls was reduced from 18 to nine years (it was raised to 13 years only in 2002) and married women were prohibited by law from attending regular schools. In 1982, the strict Islamic dress code was imposed. Before 1996, punishment for violators was 74 lashes; after it, jail time or a fine. Article 105 of the civil code decrees that “a woman cannot leave her home without her husband’s permission, even to attend her father’s funeral.” In 2005, Tehran’s City Council put forward yet more “Strategies to Extend Piety.” In the same year, a “cultural modesty” campaign was launched to restore strict veiling by doing away with “bad hejab” (I suppose this must mean loose-fitting veil) and daring though technically Islamic hejab (humm…a better fitting but still flowing veil?). In 2006, a security report produced by the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) classified feminists along with “mystics, dervishes, devil worshipers, journalists, bloggers, secular students and intellectuals, reformists, as the main threats to the national security of the country.” In 2007, a clamp down on “loose veiling” resulted in the arrest of 150,000 women in the first four days of the drive. In 2008, bicycle riding for woman was prohibited as immoral.
Yet this presumably God-fearing place, this community of the faithful is teeming with so many prostitutes that a few of the more creative mullahs contemplated the establishment of chastity houses to make temporary wives of these women of the night. Tehran, home to 10-12 million people, has an estimated 300,000 prostitutes—that is one out of every ten women of childbearing age. During the craven days of the Shah, the average age of a prostitute was 27; in the devout days of Khamenei, the Imam’s stand-in, it dropped to 20.
For all of the state’s pains to “Command What is Just and Forbid What is Wrong (al Amr bil Marouf wa al Inha’ A’an al Munkar) behind many of its laws and policies is an embarrassment of failure and pullback. In 2000, a poll done by Tehran’s Cultural and Artistic Affairs Council found that 75 percent of the people and 86 percent of students do not say their daily prayers. By its own admission, Iran is the number one drug abuser in the world. As recently as January 2009, the minister of interior and deputy police commander intimated that the public safety program, which in the first four months of its implementation in 2007 resulted in the humiliation or reprimand of one million people and the arrest of another 40,000, is a violation of people’s citizenship rights.
Yes, the regime has the guns and, yes, its Islamist reign is far from over, but the message is sullied, the example is good in every way the theocrats and their enforcers do not want it to be, the charisma is a thing of the past and, it appears, the future is ready to surprise.
A 17th century Isfahani saying admonishes people to “keep a wary eye in front you for a woman, behind you for a mule, and from every direction for a mullah.” Islamism in Iran may not be going anywhere anytime soon, but clearly the Iranian people are.